There’s something about the simple storytelling tradition of bluegrass that still endears fans to the music. The new album by the award-winning bluegrass band Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, aptly titled “Life Is a Story,” adheres to that beloved standard with a dozen tunes that weave their own beautiful tales. Lawson, the band’s leader, vocalist and mandolin player supreme, sat down with Sports and Entertainment Nashville for a sterling conversation about the album, his ever-busy schedule and other timely topics.
The album’s title actually came from Lawson himself, as he crisply relates. “After the first couple of songs we cut,” he begins, “I made the comment that life is a story. It is one big story with a lot of chapters and that became the theme of the whole record.” Lawson duly points out that his albums usually carry some sort of thematic concept, even if only on the musical side of the coin.
“In all my albums, I try to get songs that will complement each other,” he says. “I think this one flows really good. I learned early on that you had to be really careful to not get too many songs of the same tempo, or two songs in the same key right next to each other. I always try to change up things on a record. The last thing you want to do,” Lawson adds earnestly, “is have somebody get bored.”
Variety certainly spices up “Life Is a Story,” with a range of subject matter that covers philosophical grounds, personal loss and the triumph of love. The album’s lead single, “Life to My Days,” contains a hopeful, uplifting message that hooked Lawson from the get-go. “The idea came from Jerry Salley, who is one of my favorite writers.” Lawson notes. “He is a co-writer on this song. The first line says that I wish we could all live to be at least 90, and that really got me,” Lawson, who turned 73 this past April, tacks on.
The chorus, however, ultimately sold the song. “It says that I can’t add more days to my life, so I will add more life to my days,” Lawson smiles. “I thought that was a great line.” Salley also had a hand in writing “Drivin’ It Home” for the album. “I really admire Jerry’s writing,” Lawson says. “I have always had good luck with his songs.”
Lawson gives only a modest assessment of his own writing, explaining that he’s a better “song doctor” than songwriter. In other words, he knows how to tweak a song that’s been handed his way to best fit his style. His lone co-writing contribution to “Life Is A Story,” though, is a solid one, the lament “I See a Heartbreak Comin’,” which he penned with gospel music songwriter Paul Williams (not the diminutive composer who wrote hits for The Carpenters and Three Dog Night). Their friendship goes back to the early 1960’s, when Lawson joined Jimmy Martin and the Sunny Mountain Boys as banjo player and vocalist. Williams had played mandolin in Martin’s band.
“That was my first job,” Lawson proudly states. “Paul and I always say that we went to the Jimmy Martin school of music. Paul got out of the business for a while but we always stayed in touch. He came back and started doing gospel music. I have known him my whole career.”
Lawson formed Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver in 1979, and the group has undergone a series of personnel changes through the years. The current group lists five members of Quicksilver, all virtuoso musicians in their own right. Three of the members composed “Life of a Hard Workin’ Man” for the new album.
If Lawson has an eye for musical talent, he also has an ear for well-written songs. For his new album, Lawson takes a pair of long-running hits, “The Little Girl’ and the 1950’s rock classic “What Am I Living For,” and puts his unique bluegrass spin on both. Lawson shares that he related to “The Little Girl,” a No. 1 country single for John Michael Montgomery, in a personal way, as his mother was raised in foster care.
“What Am I Living For,” on the other hand, was a No. 1 rock ‘n’ roll hit for Chuck Willis, and has been covered by Ernest Tubb, Conway Twitty and Wanda Jackson, among others. But a bluegrass tune? No one would have made that connection. “I think most people wouldn’t,” Lawson agrees with a laugh. “Several people have recorded it, but nobody ever did it bluegrass. But I’ve always believed that it doesn’t matter what genre of music a song is. It’s the way you interpret it.”
Lawson played the tune for his younger Quicksilver band members, who, quite naturally, weren’t familiar with it. “They had never heard the song,” Lawson says. “I told them, ‘Boys, when we get through with it, it’s gonna be a traditional, three-quarter time bluegrass song.’ I knew exactly how I was going to do it. I think we captured the sadness and the longing of it.”
Lawson’s list of accomplishments can read the proverbial mile-long, with more than 40 albums and a slew of International Bluegrass Music Association awards, including seven for Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver for Vocal Group of the Year. In 2012, Lawson was inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame. And little known fact: Lawson served on the original board of the IBMA, the trade association that promotes bluegrass music. The organization formed in 1985.
“About 22 of us met at the BMI building in Nashville,” Lawson recalls of the IBMA’s formation. “We just asked, ‘What can we do to advance as well as preserve the music’? We didn’t have a Hall of Fame, we didn’t have an awards show, and now we have those. I like to say that we have come a long way organization-wise, but there is still a long way to go.”
It’s likely that Lawson will still be there to help make it all happen. After more than 50 years as a professional artist, he demonstrates no signs of hanging up his mandolin, though he has cut back a bit on his touring schedule. He speaks and sings clearly, without a trace of age showing in his voice. Most important, there is an all-out passion for the music and for entertaining the folks in America’s heartland.
“I’m always busy,” he says.“My problem is I can’t say ‘no’ to anybody [laughs]. But I don’t want to quit. I know there will come a day when my hands will start shaking or my voice gets raggedy. But I can always keep my hands in music.” With a final smile, Lawson simply sums up, “I still love what I do. Why would I want to leave?”
“Life Is a Story,” is available on Aug. 25.